In January 2003, some 30 years after the Vietnam War, the Institute of Medicine found a link between the herbicide Agent Orange and chronic lymphatic leukemia, a gradually spreading and often fatal cancer. It was the latest in a long list of ailments blamed on the infamous herbicide used to deforest the jungles of Vietnam.
For years the military denied the harmfulness of Agent Orange. Only after decades of relentless lawsuits and public haranguing by veterans groups did the government admit that the substance was to blame for myriad ailments in hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans and their children.
A new documentary put out by the People’s Video Network, “Poison Dust,” accuses the defense department of a similar crime with respect to depleted uranium exposure—willful ignorance.
The movie will screen in Sunnyside at All Saint’s Church at 43-12 46th Street on Tuesday, April 19th at 7 p.m. After the screening, the film’s editor, Sue Harris and Raymond Ramos, a veteran from Springfield Gardens interviewed in the film, will speak and take questions.
“We’ve known about the cancer-producing and death-producing qualities of depleted uranium since the 1850s,” Harris said. She accuses the United States government of hiding the facts related to the harmfulness of this substance because the weapons it produces are so effective. “It’s just not cost-effective to be open about this.”
Is depleted uranium the Agent Orange of this generation of soldiers? “Poison Dust” seems to think so. Uranium is an extremely heavy metal, making it ideal for munitions casings as it can pierce very heavy armor. It is also radioactive.
When a uranium shell punches through another metal, like a tank, the casing vaporizes into dust. It is this dust that critics say is harming soldiers, their families and exposed civilians. Soldiers interviewed in the film report being covered in dust from morning until night, even shaking it out of their beds in the morning.
They complain of symptoms from headaches to swelling to chronic fatigue. One Bronx soldier’s daughter, conceived shortly after his return, has a severely deformed hand from a birth defect. He was convinced of the involvement of depleted uranium when he saw photographs of similar deformities in Iraqi children.
Another soldier featured in the film, Ramos from Springfield Gardens, claims exposure to the metal while serving in Iraq. He speaks of working out following his return hoping to feel more like his old self, only to find that he was weaker and more tired.
In addition, there is extensive footage of a conference on the issue, featuring testimony from scientists and Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, who has written several expose stories on the issue.
One of the most interesting techniques Harris uses in the film is weaving in the military’s history of denying the harm of environmental pollutants in wartime. An especially riveting scene in the film shows several hundred soldiers in 1945 sitting cross legged on the desert ground in New Mexico, watching a nuclear test.
As the mushroom cloud erupts, the soldiers gape at it with glee, and the viewer is shocked at how ignorant everyone is of the terrible danger they’re in. It’s an effective reminder that government doesn’t always know best. And when it comes to coming clean during wartime, the military’s track record is full of blemishes.
While the movie will reinforce the beliefs of those convinced about the dangers of depleted uranium exposure, it might not fully sway the undecided viewer. Throughout the film there is no rebuttal or explanation by the government or manufacturers of the substance. There are no comments from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It’s unclear in the film if these groups refused to participate, or if they were never asked. Either way, the one-sidedness of the coverage chips away at the film’s credibility. The experts that Harris interviews are certainly impressive, but there is a whiff of propaganda to the endeavor.
“I think they have plenty of time on the air,” Harris said of her decision not to interview any government representatives. “I feel like it’s more important to get the information out.”